In these circumstances, nobody should covet No.10
Let’s start with the positives, such as they were yesterday evening. Candidate Truss believes that Candidate Sunak is a well dressed-man. Asked about his suits, and his expensive loafers, which have been attacked in recent days by the Mail and Nadine Dorries, Truss says that Sunak is: “a very well dressed man”.
Why the candidates were talking about Sunak’s dress was a profound public mystery. For almost six minutes the candidates talked suits and earrings, as a wall-faced audience of Stoke-on-Trent Tories stared on, thinking about their tripling heating bills, the fact that buying a chicken thigh now requires taking out a mortgage, and that they were never asked if they wanted to get rid of the current Prime Minister.
The candidates didn’t talk about immigration, or the NHS, or housing, or productivity. Despite the fact he wasn’t wearing a tie, Sunak kept saying he was a Conservative, and that he believed in sound money, and honesty. He spoke quickly, not through nerves, but from overpreparedness. He was talking the way a clever student writes during an exam — the caffeinated speed of movement that comes with mainlining on information over several sleepless nights.
Sunak blurted over Truss, and she let him. Truss never squandered the asset of silence, which is her strongest by far. Speaking, when you have ideas like hers, is not always for the best. Her zingers — well, the ones that will appeal to the Tory selectorate — involved comparing Sunak to Gordon Brown and Project Fear. She said he had raised taxes to the highest levels in seventy years, that only she could realise post-Brexit opportunities, and that “I’m prepared to take on the orthodoxy”. The reasons why tax is so high, exactly what these post-Brexit opportunities are, and how this “orthodoxy” would be taken on, were never elaborated. She claimed she was a “teenage eco warrior” — the point at which Sunak ought to have shouted NERD at the Foreign Secretary, but Rishi looked forlornly down at his notes instead.
Twenty points down in the polls, Sunak had much more to do last night. He did not blow it, but he did not come close to winning either. It must be hard for him. To beat Truss, he has to get down to her level, which is roughly 140 IQ points below his. When he tried to explain that it would be a terrible mistake to cut taxes this year to Truss, it was like watching an earnest football coach trying to instruct a man with no legs how to do a bicycle kick.
Sunak is too clever to be on that stage, and the problem is that he clearly knows that too, and cannot hide it. Truss says:“I might not be the slickest presenter in the business”, and is applauded. Better to seem dumb and strident, then smart and measured. This is where we are. On presentation, as on economics, the two candidates exist in parallel realities.
In reality reality, which has nothing to do with badly formatted television debates, the OECD recently said that Britain would enter recession next year. It has the worst outlook among G20 nations except Russia, which, as you may be aware, is having a difficult year financially. Inflation is at a forty year high, and the governor of the Bank of England says it will likely endure here for longer than the US or Europe.
Given these circumstances, the obvious though impossible to ask question was: Why would you want to be Prime Minister? In the coming months there will be no worse job in the country.